Zip me into your skin my love.

So I am one of those rare people who doesn’t like to be alone. I know, l know, most folks-even happily coupled ones, find this creepy. I totally understand. I freely admit that this is not a propensity that everyone has.  Also understand that I am not a co-dependent; in fact anyone that knows me well knows that I am not the type to rely upon my significant other to provide my identity or social circle. On the

Squirrel

From the annals of Sarah: “My friend’s mom hit a squirrel while we were out doing errands, she was beside herself with grief. She pulled over and began chanting ‘squirrels mate for life, squirrels mate for life’ while weeping. All we could do was look on.”  Authors note: Squirrels most definitely DO NOT mate for life.

contrary I am a fairly unique human who brings her own eccentricities and hobbies to the mix. It’s simply that I am also one of those creatures that was not intended to be solitary, I am hyper-social. I only thrive when there are other humans around. The idea of the colony of the bee or naked mole rat is a veritable utopia for me.

mole rats

Oh sweet mole rat! How heavenly to live in proximity to hundreds of other velvety, cushiony bodies.

It is just this impulse that led me to identify not only with such creatures as Eagles and Beavers (creatures that mate for life) but with an animal who takes things even further: the Anglerfish.

While there are several different species of anglerfish the ones that I find most fascinating are those belonging to the suborder Ceratioidei. These anglers live in the

Anglerfish

Who could believe any of these alluring anglerfish would have a hard time finding a date?

deep sea, an environment so inhospitable that there are very few creatures who live there. This can be problematic not only when trying for a mate but also when attempting to locate prey. When it comes to hunting the anglerfish has evolved an enticing lure in the form of a fleshy growth which dangles from a filament attached to it’s head, hanging right in front of it’s giant jaws. In our deep sea dwelling friends this lure is also bioluminescent; the angler wiggles it’s glowing head blob about to attract prey in the black of the ocean deep.

Head Dingle

The anglerfish maintains a thriving community of bioluminescent bacteria inside of it’s head dingle.

The anglerfish is nothing if not resourceful, so how does it find a mate while loafing around in the briny deep? This question befuddled scientists until relatively recently. In fact when they first started hauling anglerfish up from the ocean they were confused because every single specimen they found was female. Even more mystifying was that many of these females appeared to be infested with the same kind of parasite. Turns out that those “parasites” were actually the male anglerfish who had fused to the females. In fact the male anglerfish, who is significantly smaller than the female, is only able to survive to maturity if he is able to find, and chomp onto, a female. He finds his mate solely by scent; swimming about blindly, he sniffs the water for the presence of female pheromones, a smell that not only represents a chance at love but also a reprieve from certain death. In the unlikely event that the male does find a lady, he must act quickly-biting onto her he releases an enzyme that “digests the skin of his mouth and her body, fusing the pair down to the blood-vessel level”. They will stay like this for the rest of their lives. The female “host” supplying nutrients and blood to their now joint circulatory system and the male, for his part, supplying his genetic material in the form of sperm. It is not unusual to find more than one male attached to a single female.  In one case scientists reported finding a female with eight males living

Fused

Edna never forgave Jerry for accidentally fusing to her head.

on (off?) her. Practicing sexual parasitism and polyamory while paradoxically committing to the most permanent coupling biologically possible?! This species has much to teach us about unorthodox relationships; it may just have discovered the best of all possible worlds.

So you may be reading this thinking uncomfortably: “does this mean she want to be surgically attached to Tommy? Is that where she is going with all this?” No, rest assured, I do not (although that would be the best “Go Fund Me” ever). Sure, I struggle sometimes when all alone in the house (I tried to alleviate this by acquiring numerous pets but it’s just not the same) but I have grown to recognize the importance of having space and time alone in maintaining a healthy relationship-I have read the research and have seen it borne out in my own relationship.  Luckily I am not faced with a life lived in a dark, vast, and desolate world; one where an individual may go days or even weeks without glimpsing another living creature. In this context I can understand the anglerfish’s choice,  remarkably it seems that there are some circumstances where the company of a shriveled, sad-sack, parasite is better than being alone.

 

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The Kissing Bug…of doooom!

The next insect that I am discussing has also been making the rounds on Facebook: the insect colloquially known as the”Kissing Bug”. You may have seen posts decrying the danger of this bug, posts with headings like: “Deadly ‘kissing bug’ spreads; bites you as you sleep” and “Beware the kissing bug!”. This alarmist tone has created panic amongst internet users, many who now find themselves clutching a loved one every time they see a beetle trundling across the floor (there is even a website devoted to “confirming your kissing bug encounter” that displays all types of insects that people are misidentifying as kissing bugs- there is quite an array). But what are these creatures? Is there truly cause for alarm? Is the human race really doomed? Let’s find out a little more about them before we give ourselves over to the fear that has gripped the Facebook nation.

Kissing  bugs are actually called Triatomines, a name which doesn’t refer to one specific bug but rather the entire 130 species that make up the subfamily of the “assassin bug” or Reduviidae. What sets triatomines apart from their relatives is that they are what scientists refer to as

Bug 1899

This is not the triatomine’s first rodeo: this article harkens back to the first kissing bug scare of 1899.

Blood Sucking Butterfly

Mysteriously this is the image wikipedia provides for hematophagy with the caption: “butterflies suck fresh blood from a sock”.

hematophagous (blood suckers) as opposed to being predators (murderous killers) like members of the rest of their family.  Although both species can be readily identified by their giant probosces,  triatomines use their appendages to suck  blood while other assassin bugs practice extraoral digestion (they use their proboscis like a hypodermic needle, injecting lethal saliva into their victims, liquifying their innards, and drinking the remains). While it is a laudable distinction that triatomines do not have to dispatch their victims in order to eat they sometimes visit an equally unpleasant fate upon the mammal they are dining on: disease. Hematophagous insects are commonly vectors of disease; guilty of spreading viruses, bacteria and parasites around the world. Malaria, Lyme disease, bubonic plague and dengue fever are all examples of infectious diseases that are spread through the bite of infected insects. Triatomines are one of the main culprits in the spread of Chagas disease- a parasitic infection caused by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi.  Chagas disease causes both acute and chronic conditions. Affecting the nervous system, digestive system and heart, Chagas can be fatal if not treated early, usually from the heart muscle damage it causes.

Protazo

Trypanasoma cruzi,  is it possible the kissing bug  is just a pawn in their sick game?

The good news, at least for those of us living in the US- particularly northern regions (and here I will freely admit “Husband, get me a goat” is an incredibly regionally biased publication), Chagas disease is of relatively little threat. In reports  from the CDC and other reputable sources I could only find between 7 and 44 verified cases where triatomines were responsible for the infection of people within the US. However, estimates of people carrying Chagas disease in the US are significantly higher because of the number of people emigrating from rural Latin America, where Chagas is endemic, to the US. It appears that although the US is inhabited by both triatomines and individuals infected with Chagas, the conditions in which people are regularly coming into contact with these insects are not as common in the US. Additionally, several studies have shown that the rate of infection is actually very low, with an estimated 1 case of Chagas disease per 900 to 4,000 infected triatomine-human interactions.

So with little evidence of its threat to the general population of the US, why are people so worked up about this bug? I think the answer lies somewhere between its stabby proboscis and its anus. Triatomines aggregate together in rocks and crevices during the day and like so many other disreputable creatures (see possums, bats, frat boys) only emerge when the sun goes down. Attracted to carbon dioxide

Richard Simmons

How scientists believe a sleeping human appears to a hungry triatomine.

and the other various compounds that mammals unwittingly emit- the scent of a sweaty, snoring human is irresistible to a triatomine. These inadvertent beacons send them into a probing frenzy, sounding their probosces on all sorts of surfaces until they find the perfect spot. As their street name “kissing bug” implies, triatomines generally bite   a person’s face or lips; the insects prefer a spot in close proximity to the vent emitting that sweet, sweet CO2. Interestingly, unlike most other insect vectors the triatomine does not spread it’s parasitic load through it’s bite. It is guilty of an action far more odious. Triatomines infect their victims by unceremoniously defecating into the lesion they created to feed upon the blood of their victims. This sinister night stalker is not only predating your delicious face meat but also has the audacity to use you as a toilet-willfully exposing you to its parasite riddled feces. Long and short of it is: this bug is a real asshole.

As I mentioned in my last post the purpose of my research was not to find ways to terrorize you but to get to truly get to the bottom of whether the threat these insects pose is real or is being inflated. In the case of the triatomine the answer is a bit complicated. Chagas disease is indeed endemic in parts of the America’s, in fact it’s the leading parasitic disease in the Western Hemisphere, so it is important

2-triatominae

Face pooper.

that we recognize its potential to do harm to many human beings. However for the average North American Facebook user a midnight tango with a triatomine is an unlikely event and even unlikelier still is that such an event would lead to the contraction of Chagas. Alarmist posts are perpetuated not to warn of actual danger, but because they speak to our deepest, darkest fears- fears which are generally not rational. The reality is that we are far, far more likely to have an encounter with a mosquito or tick in the next few months as the weather warms, but I would be very surprised if anyone is losing sleep about this fact. There is just something fundamentally unsettling about the triatomine’s behavior. Perhaps because, in the words of Ween, everyone knows you just “don’t shit where you eat”.

For more information on Chagas disease in the US:

CDC-Chagas Disease

Or if you prefer something a bit more spurious a la youtube:

The Kissing Bug Will Kill You

KISSING BUG

I’ve been pillared!

With global warming and global travel comes the unprecedented movement of species  between continents or creeping slowly northward as climes become more hospitable. As general xenophobes, we humans seem to react with nothing short of hysteria when a new species pops up in our region and seem to revel in declarations of their danger. This phenomenon seems to be particularly true when it comes to insects. I recognize that there is a certain logic to it. In the Northeast, where I hail from, there has undoubtedly been an increase in mosquito and tick born illnesses and this is certainly a concern. What I am dubious of is the new trend in articles (particularly popular among Facebook users) scaremongering about this or that esoteric insect species and imploring people to be hypervigilant lest they or a loved one fall victim. I have decided to do a little research on a couple of these maligned insects to see if there was any truth to these wild claims or if their species should vindicated.

Cute beetle

Attention Facebook Users: this is the Mid-Atlantic Fiend Beetle. It uses its antennae to suck the life from babies, puppies, and helpless old people. It is everywhere, and most likely can’t be stopped. Please Repost!

The first insect on my list is the White Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar,  which while not an invasive species to the North East,  was certainly fairly low profile until a few years ago when social media warnings began popping up about “a

Tussock moth

Phew! Thanks internet, I was just about to stick one of these in my nose.

poisonous black and white caterpillar” who’s hairs “embed in your skin and send poison throughout your body”. Soon to follow were images of people whose skin was blistered and boiled, huge swaths of their bodies covered in weeping sores. It was all very unsettling. Particularly when these little shaggy larva began showing up on the playground of the elementary school where I work. Suddenly I found myself becoming one of those voices of doom- my mind filled with images of children with hideously scarred faces, eternally jumpy when outdoors or when presented with a furry, tube-shaped object.

Child and pillar

Moments before young Wendy is horrible disfigured.

For days recess became a relentless grind of smashing caterpillars and chasing away children, to whom a caterpillar is like a shiny beacon toward which they are inextricably drawn. This state of affairs continued until one fateful afternoon, while on recess duty, I turned to find one of these demons resting on my shoulder staring at me with its tiny, beady eyes. I screamed and flicked it off, jumping about wildly in the universally recognized “I just had an unwanted interaction with a bug” dance. “Oh my god”,  I thought with mounting dread, “I’ve been pillared!” I closed my eyes and waited for the end. Shortly, something began to happen on my arm: a slight reddening of the skin, an undeniable burning-tingling sensation, and then a few lumps appeared.  Panicked, a coworker and I poured over google, trying to calculate how much time I had left. An hour passed, I applied some anti-itch cream onto the slightly bumpy rash, a rash much like the aftermath of an encounter with nettles. As the adrenaline faded I began to relax and soon forgot all about it. It was a bit uncomfortable but certainly better and much more short lived than say, poison ivy. As quickly as it had begun the rein of terror of the white hickory tussock moth caterpillar had ended… at least for me.

Tussock moths, like most caterpillars have to employ some sort of defense mechanism to protect themselves being that they are soft, meaty, food cylinders. Many caterpillars are poisonous and often brightly colored to warn predators not to attempt a taste. Others, like the tussock moth caterpillar, have taken things a little further and evolved  urticating hairs or bristles that dislodge when they are threatened and cause irritation in a predator or unsuspecting victim.

Slug moth

The Slug Moth Caterpillar brings urticating hairs to a whole new level.

Like with many venomous insects, the chemical make up of the particular species effect people to varying degrees. Certain people may have a more acute allergic reaction to the venom than others, but such extreme responses are generally uncommon. Much like with bees, the threat of a hickory tussock moth caterpillar is very low and can be mitigated through common sense (i.e. do not grab one and rub it enthusiastically onto your entire body or impulsively consume one) .

While white hickory tussock moths have for most part been vindicated, I do want to point out that there is a reason to be cautious of caterpillars in general because there are some that you really don’t want to mess with. Species such as the Puss Caterpillar and Saddleback Caterpillar, both native to the southern US, have a well earned reputation as menaces to society.  The sting of both these caterpillars can be a painful affair, described by some as “burning like fire”.

Puss caterpillar

It’s easy to see how accidents happen with the Puss Caterpillar. It’s hard to feel threatened by a hair lump.

Their venom is potent enough to potentially cause serious bodily harm; effects from their sting can range from painful swollen rashes, nausea, a drop in blood pressure or heart palpitations.

Saddleback

The Saddleback Caterpillar really does want to kill you.

I do not mention these critters to cause alarm, but simply to point out that it is good to remember that some degree of caution is never a bad policy when it comes to wildlife. Caterpillars, like most creatures, are not out to get us- they have simply evolved various defenses because they are in many ways very vulnerable.

There are inherent risks in going out and exploring the natural word, but even a quick assessment reveals that the benefits far outweigh the risk . Please do your part to help quell the trend towards ignorance and alarmism that is an unfortunate side effect of our internet age. Go forth and proselytize tolerance for these misunderstood, tufty moth babies-you may just want to make sure you’ve got some calamine waiting in the wings.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Husband, get me a goat” where I discuss the sinister  “Kissing Bug”!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tree of Life, Tree of Stench.

Spring is almost here in New England and along with the robins comes an explosion of scent as the earth begins to thaw and the plants to bloom. In the spirit of recognizing the less commonly admired natural phenomena, lets talk about some stinky trees!

Topiary

Nothing says “disposable income” like an acre of fastidiously groomed balls in your yard.

The first tree on my list is the common Boxwood, varieties of which can be found in both tree and hedge form. Native to several different

Pee shrub

Pee Shrub, Anywhere USA

continents, the boxwood is an ubiquitous presence in yards everywhere in the US. Frequently used to grow whimsical topiaries for the super rich, it also has the distinction of helping create the ridiculous industry of plant hairdressing. An evergreen with tiny leaves instead of needles, the boxwood is a favorite for creating hedges between properties or adding some curb appeal around a home. Throughout fall and winter the boxwood is a rather innocuous presence but trouble brews as the temperatures begin to heat up. When the oil in the boxwood leaves reaches a certain point-POOF. Out comes an acrid stink which many describe as “cat pee”. Interestingly the exact nature of the

Shame cat

This cat carries the weight of shame of his people over their much maligned, pungent leavings.

boxwood’s scent seems to be a pretty polarizing  topic on the internet. Many claim to”love the smell”, that it reminds them of “summer during childhood” or often that it is simply “earthy”. These people it should be noted are most certainly delusional because I can tell you the plant unequivocally reeks of cat urine-sniff one for yourself this August. It’s not just me either: this claim is backed up by many people who would have a vested interest in the topic: realtors. There are many anecdotes from both realtors and sellers reporting a struggle to sell homes with boxwoods planted in the vicinity; buyers were convinced there was a band of roving cats relieving themselves in the shrubbery.

The next tree on the list is one I don’t have any personal experience with but has too good a story to pass up, let us consider the Ginkgo tree. Originally native to China, ginkgo biloba has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes and it’s seeds harvested for use in traditional Japanese and Chinese cooking (once roasted they are described as having a sweet flavor and chestnut like texture, but beware-eating too many or eating them over a long period of time can cause poisoning). The ginkgo tree made its way to the US from Asia over two hundred years ago. Prized for it’s unique foliage and natural fortitude, the ginkgo is a hardy ornamental resistant to

Ginkgo Leaf

The leaves of the ginkgo are pretty kick-ass.

pollution, disease and even nuclear fallout (6 ginkgo trees were among the only living things to survive within a 2 km radius of the bomb dropped at Hiroshima). In many ways this tree is pretty magical:it feeds us, gives us medicine, is easy on the eyes and apparently invulnerable. However, there is a big catch-remember those nuts that people have been collecting for thousands of years? Yeah well those nuts are encased in a light yellowish brown flesh that once fallen from the tree begin to emit the pungent stench of vomit. Also described as

Deer

We paid this deer actor for a dramatic reenactment of “sniffing the ginkgo”.

“rancid butter” or “overaged parmesan cheese”, the ginkgo’s odor is caused by the presence of butyric acid, which is indeed the fatty acid found in human vomit, milk and milk products. Fortunately only the female trees produce the fruit, and only then if they are planted in close

Ginkgo fruits

The culprit: the lady bits of a ginkgo.

proximity to the male trees. Originally cities and municipalities attempted to plant only male trees, however when the trees are young it can be difficult if not impossible to determine their sex. To complicate the matter further the females do not begin to produce fruit until they are around 25 years old so it is generally a shock when an established neighborhood landmark suddenly begins dropping a profusion of stink bombs after two decades of relative inactivity.  Alas, in a few more decades this puke-y funk may only be a memory as nearly all of the ginkgo trees planted in the US today are grafted in an attempt to ensure all future ginkgo trees are male.

Third and final in my stink-tree line up is the great American Chestnut, a tree for which I have a particular fondness. Much of my compassion for the chestnut comes from the fact that as a species it has had a rough go. Once a commonly used hardwood timber tree, the great chestnut blight of the early 20th century wiped out an estimated 3-4 million trees, making adult specimens a relatively rarity. I was lucky enough to have grown up near one of these trees and more than the edible nuts inside, my sister and I were fascinated by the growth of their spiky pods. The pods would grow as large as an orange before splitting open (just like in the Alien movie) spilling their contents to the Earth. Once the nuts were gone the tree quickly cast off the obsolete husks and we would collect them, probing their sharp spikes with our finger tips and marveling at the heft  of

American chestnut ball

The American chestnut’s spiky, nut pod.

these massive, otherworldly growths. There are many things about the American chestnut that make it interesting: their rarity, unusual seed pods, and tragic past are just the beginning. In my opinion it is their aroma that is their most noteworthy and distinctive attribute. On warm summer nights, when the male flowers (called catkins) are in bloom you will catch a

Catkins

Catkins: a super cute name for plant genitals.

whiff on the wind and immediately think, “what the…chlorine? No.Wait. Oh my god, I know that smell.. it’s semen.”  That’s right, the American chestnut smells like semen.  Described as “pungent”, “an acrid tang” or as one colorful arborist suggested “like a whore house on a hot summer’s day”, the scent of the American chestnut appears to be universally reviled.  Although I couldn’t find any definitive explanation for the smell, it is probable that both semen and the chestnut have some similarities in their chemical make up-likely ammonia or some other sterile-smelling alkaloid. Surprisingly this scent phenomenon seems to be relatively common in the plant world. In researching the American chestnut I also stumbled upon the Callery Pear and The Tree of Heaven,  more common trees whose seedy odor has attracted a veritable cult of detractors extending from the West Coast to New York City and the small towns of Western Massachusetts.

Flowers like roses, lilies, and jasmine seem to get all our consideration when we reflect on the world of botanical odor but there are indeed a myriad of other plants sending their essence into the world with no regard for how we humans feel about it. I for one enjoy the diversity of scents in the world and wouldn’t have it any other way. And as always remember: a rose has never smelled so sweet as when you’ve just had a nostril full of plant jizz.

 

To aestivate a dear friend.

Keeping pet frogs is unusual, I am the first to admit. Even within the weirdo laden niche world of “herp enthusiasts” frog people are like the peculiar bachelor uncle that everyone struggles to relate to.  In a way I understand; frog husbandry is certainly not for everyone.  It requires a passion for a creature who seemingly has very little personality, may go unmoving for 12+ hours, eats its own skin on a regular basis and unabashedly poops in it’s water dish. On the other hand when it comes to the phenomenon known as kinderschema or more colloquially as the “cute factor”, the humble frog is the apotheosis. As renowned ethnographer and foremost cuteness-studier-guy Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfedlt reported, humans are hardwired to be attracted to creatures with: “(a) large head relative to body size, rounded head; (b) large, protruding forehead; (c) large eyes relative to face, eyes below midline of head; (d) rounded, protruding cheeks; (e) rounded body shape; and (f) soft, elastic body surfaces.”  So you see where I am going here? Yeah that’s right check this guy out! Human babies ain’t got nothin’ on him.

Whites treefrog

A White’s tree frog doing what it does best: look freaking adorable.

Horned frog 2

This handsome, cheery Argentine horned frog lays in wait for its next victim.

This being said, having your home full of rare and exotic frogs isn’t always the magical Shangri-la so many assume it to be. Sometimes you may find yourself in the position of making some pretty hard decisions. The latest conundrum to have surfaced has to do with my Budgett’s frog, Blob Dylan (Blobby to his friends) and the fateful day date we  noticed the black tubercles that had begun to emerge on his back feet (more on this shortly). For the 99.9% of you who don’t know, Budgett’s frogs are aquatic frogs native to South America, also called Paraguay Horned Frogs. Horned frogs are a subcategory of frogs that are ambush predators,

Blobby

Blobby the Budgett’s frog at his home in Leyden, Massachusetts.

meaning they are basically blobs with giant mouths that sit around on their stumpy limbs waiting for food to fall into their mouths. In addition to a lethargic life style, Blobby’s particular genus has also evolved a very amazing trick to help them survive in their native environment; a little ability called aestivation. Aestivation is like bizarro world hibernation.  Instead of responding to cold temperatures that trigger other animals to go into dens and sleep until the world is less depressing and desolate, animals that aestivate go into dormancy to protect themselves from hot, arid conditions. As temperatures rise and water levels begin to lower, Budgett’s frogs use  tubercles (hard spade like appendages on their back feet) to dig themselves into the mud. Deeper and deeper they go and as they descend

Tubercle

The tubercle of a Couch’s spadefoot toad.

they begin to build up layer upon layer of skin, until finally they are entirely encased in a cocoon of their own mucas. Then they go dormant; their metabolism and heart rate slowing to a state of almost suspended animation. Here they will remain for up to 4 months until the rainy season comes and they are awoken. They then proceed to eat their way out of their skin sack and return to the surface to eat invertebrates and mate.

Although there is some debate in the frog community, it is generally believed that if you do not recreate this yearly cycle you shorten your frog’s life span significantly. However, there is much risk in trying to recreate this natural process at home-one wrong move and you risk being greeted by a desiccated frog husk come spring. Not to mention the fact that you have to accept the prospect of having a beloved friend existing in a

4-water-holding-frog-in-coc

Australian water holding frog during aestivation. These frogs were used for drinking water (think dig up and wring out) by Aborigines during times when water was scarce.

state of suspended animation in a bucket of dirt in the guest room. It’s a lot to handle. This frog Sophie’s Choice weighs heavily on me as Blobby continues to mature into an adult frog and his biological clock (in this case spiky foot appendages) continues ticking. Blobby’s situation serves as a reminder to us of the complexity of keeping animals that have not co-evolved with humans and become domesticated over thousands of years. These considerations will become increasingly common as habitat loss means that more and more species’ survival will depend upon being kept and bred in captivity (Budgett’s Frogs themselves are considered a threatened species due to habitat destruction, but don’t worry Blobby was responsibly attained through a captive breeding program). I haven’t decided what to do yet, taking on the literal role of Mother Nature is a tricky business and not to be entered into lightly. Regardless of what we decide I am honored to get to watch a Budgett’s frog live his life; eating worms with reckless abandon and enjoying the flow of water across his jiggling frog jacket.  Aestivation or not I will enjoy whatever time we have together.

Budgetts Frog

 

You can take your gluten free brownies and stick them where the sun don’t shine.

So I will admit that I have been having some uncomfortable feelings brewing about the newest fad of weird dietary restrictions, the gluten free diet. Unlike previous dietary fads like the Atkins or Super Foods in which people were in search of painless and dramatic weight loss, the gluten free people seemed to have banned together to form some sort cult. Gluten free is not a means to an end, it is a lifestyle.

The mark of a noglut.

These nogluts, as I have taken to calling them, are not just using their diet for themselves but forcing it upon their children and loved ones. I have seen this happen many times, but have remained silent.   It wasn’t until after having Thanksgiving with a cousin employed by a Whole Foods in Connecticut that I realized this phenomenon was spreading outside the sphere of the Pioneer Valley ( an area with a rich history of bizarre dietary restrictions) and needed addressing. Before anyone gets offended I want to point out that I don’t deny the existence of Celiacs disease, a bona fide gluten intolerance which causes a slew of gastrointestinal maladies, but the fact that  gluten intolerance is suddenly popping up like wild fire among white, liberal arts educated, yuppie types, seems a bit dubious.  I mean humans have been practicing agriculture now for over 10,000 years, a mere blip in the scheme of time yes, but plenty of time for  our ancestors to build up a solid if imperfect relationship with gluten.

Anyone who has ever visited a Whole Foods or say lived in the Pioneer Valley knows that there is nothing worse than getting stuck behind a noglut in the grocery store.

This woman is gluten intolerant and shops at Whole Foods.

They are always scrutinizing packages in a very loud, self important voice calling out to random people as if they are store employees, “excuse me, does this have gluten in it?” Lady it’s pasta, what the hell do you think?  These people have certainly become the pariahs of the grocery store, dinner parties, and pot lucks alike.

Really the thing  that makes these nogluts so intolerable is not their hatred toward gluten, but their desire to proselytize their no gluten life style’s to anyone who will listen. To hear them talk you would have thought that before they cut gluten out of their diets they were roaming the Earth as mere shells of themselves; wretched, gas filled gollums praying for death.

Oh, what could have been if only Gollum had cut gluten out of his diet!

It’s hard to believe that a simple food “sensitivity” could have created such strife, how did all these poor people live pre-2010?  The thing is I do believe the rejuvenation and inner piece people experience from their gluten free diet is real, I just don’t think it has anything to do with gluten. These people are experiencing the high one gets from the knowledge that they are better and more well informed than everybody else, the idea that they are the chosen ones, the people that  have been let in on a cosmic secret that will certainly lead them to eternal life (see veganism, Jehovah’s Witnesses).  This high can be dangerous  as we have seen in instances such as Jonestown and Waco, it’s this kind of twisted group think that leads to real tragedy.

I, for one, am progluten. Being diabetic I sadly have to leave my gluten munching to a minimum (most things with gluten are also loaded with carbs, but I swear carbs really are trying to kill me).  On the rare occasion that I do eat gluten, I want my pasta to have the delicious chewiness and my bread to have the doughy elasticity that only gluten can provide. It’s so much more satisfying than the oft mealy countenance of their gluten free counter parts. In the end what I am really trying to say is  not that we should kill all gluten free advocates (although remember, no one likes the person watching them with a mix of pity and disgust as they eat their sandwich) but that when it comes to food you really should be embracing moderation. If not for your health, than for the sanity of those around you.  We are lucky enough to live in a country where food is  abundant, so abundant in fact that an entire group of people have the luxury of snubbing wheat, the basis of the entire bottom of food pyramid. It’s good to remind ourselves now and again of this tremendous advantage we are given.  Hopefully in doing so we can  avoid taking for granted  the huge variety and bounty that we have to feed our bodies and keep our minds at peace.

Humanure.

I mentioned briefly this summer via Facebook about my renewed appreciation for my toilet and while my statement was in earnest, I wasn’t surprised to see my gratitude struck many  as comical. I can only imagine this is because most of you have never gone an appreciable amount of time without the convenience of a flushing toilet and I’m sure even fewer of you have had the chance to encounter a composting toilet. While I can appreciate the fleeting discomfort of using a squat toilet, a reeking pit toilet, or god forbid having to poop in the woods- all these unusual bathroom experiences are still fundamentally incomparable to the horror of the composting toilet. Although primitive, the aforementioned sanitary methods still symbolically take the waste away where it can be quickly forgotten- fulfilling our innate desire to be as far away from it as possible. It is this violation of this most primal urge that sets the composting toilet apart, and what makes it  a horrible bathroom experience in a category all its own.

Ohhhhh, now I get it. Gee that’s not disgusting at all!!

A composting toilet is quiet simple: it is a giant plastic tub with a seat on it and a chimney vented to the outdoors. Inside there is a rotating drum into which the waste falls and is collected. This inner drum has a handle and must be rotated once a week to jumble it’s content’s together and facilitate even exposure to the aerobic microbes (re: poo eating bacteria) living inside.

This beauty is the Sun Mar “Excel”, the very same model I spent a week fretting over  (among other things)  while on vacation.      

As my own aside I would also like to point out that this tumbling feature is  good to utilize as soon as the contents become too disturbing to look at. It is here inside this drum that your excrement sits day by day undergoing it’s repugnant metamorphosis until it has broken down enough to be dumped into the ” finishing tray” located at the bottom of the unit. Once it has sat for a month “finishing” it is finally ready to be emptied out and placed in the garden as fertilizer. That’s right,  this toilet allows you to use your own poop in your garden, home grown humanure.

Now, even if you can get past the repulsive idea of collecting and cultivating your own waste to use as garden fertilizer, the composting toilet is far from user friendly. Firstly the seat stands a remarkable three feet off the ground making it awkward to mount, especially in case of emergency. And while the company provides a stool attached to the unit, it requires an extreme amount of grace and dexterity to ascend the stool with your pants down and than pivot successfully onto the seat. Once mounted,  it is very hard to relax and take care of business because it feels as though you are quite literally seated upon a thrown, high above the room, high enough that the idea of falling actually seems life threatening . Once  you manage to successful complete a “movement” (here’s hoping you remembered to take the paper up there with you) and safely dismount, the real trouble begins. As part of the composting toilet process one must add “bulker” to the drum to add carbon and expedite break down. The toilet’s directions vaguely implore you to add “two or three scoops of peat after each movement”. Brimming scoops? Conservative ones? Scoops infiltrated with hair? Does the coffee mug provided really qualify as a scoop? I DON’T KNOW! The only thing I do know is that no matter what I choose I will immediately decide it was the wrong choice and have to spend the next 20 minutes taking corrective action.  The composting toilet, more importantly what happens inside of it, becomes an obsession.

Some perverts made their own composting toilet. At least it appears to be located out of doors.

I have never spent so much time researching the breakdown of my own feces on vacation as I did while using the composting toilet this summer.  I visited the Sun Mar website’s trouble shooting link 42 times.  And in my defense the stakes are high-I mean, I don’t want some hippie ingesting a contaminated carrot, especially if it’s my E-Coli that it’s been violated with.  Nobody needs that on their conscience.

In closing I want everyone to know I can appreciate, now more than ever, the need for green, sustainable systems which tread lightly on our planet’s resources. I am personally committed to making lifestyle decisions which mitigate my negative impact on the environment: I recycle, I dabbled in vermiculture, and sometimes I even buy local meat and discuss how you can really “taste the freedom”.  Cultivating my poo, however, is where I have to draw the line.  Sure, I want my children and their children’s children to live in a world where there are still polar bears and fresh drinking water, but if it’s not too much to ask, also a world where you can flush the toilet and simply wave good bye.